Georgie: Have a clear vision of what your business stands for and a solid roadmap of specific goals you want to achieve and how you want your business to grow.
Hilary: Trust your gut. If you feel strongly about something, speak up! Confidence in your intuition can positively impact your work and your contributions to the company’s success overall.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hilary Gibbs and Georgie Smith.
Hilary Gibbs and Georgie Smith are Co-Founders of the eco-friendly, decorative tile brand LIVDEN. These Southern California natives and stepsisters are on a mission to make a world where art and sustainability collide, and recycled materials are at the forefront of every home. LIVDEN offers over 50 unique tile designs and two different tile bodies made from 65–100% recycled materials so anyone can go green at home without sacrificing on design.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Hilary: I grew up in the world of decorative tile! My mother, Melinda Earl, started the nationwide tile manufacturing company, StoneImpressions, when I was just a few years old. Even at a young age, I remember helping wherever I could and being completely enthralled with the artistic nature of the tile design process. After attending college, I joined the StoneImpressions team full time. Eventually, I got to a point where I was ready to explore my own artistic voice and create modern designs that spoke to my unique sense of style. When Georgie came to me with the idea for a more sustainable decorative tile, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to showcase my designs and unique artistic style.
Georgie: What led me to LIVDEN was the 10 months I spent working for StoneImpressions before my Peace Corps service in Moldova. During that time, I got an inside look at how Melinda had built not only a business, but a network of industry and client relationships that formed this strong, like-minded community around her. I was truly inspired, and I came back full time in 2014 as a National Account Manager. With that position, I was lucky enough to travel across the country and get an up close and personal look at the multifaceted tile industry. These experiences crystallized something I had seen elsewhere in my travels: the need for sustainability. In the design industry specifically, I saw this burgeoning need for sustainable materials that didn’t sacrifice design or color. This lightbulb moment is what got the ball rolling between Hilary and I — we realized we could synergize our talents to create a tile line that prioritized sustainability and unique design style.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Hilary: One story that comes to mind is how the LIVDEN website launched. We spent months perfecting the website and getting our digital ducks in a row for the online debut. But, unexpectedly, we hit a delay with our development team that pushed back our original launch date. With our new deadline set, we were confident the website launch would go off without a hitch. Unbeknownst to us, however, COVID-19 had other plans for our launch day. Namely, plans for California (where we and LIVDEN are based) to go into its first full-fledged locked down on that very same day. Needless to say, our launch didn’t go quite as planned! The most interesting part of the story though, in my opinion, is what we took away from the experience. The launch showed us that, even with great planning, you really can never know what lies ahead. As a team, it’s important to prioritize flexibility, open-mindedness (and seeing the humor in things!) to successfully navigate through the ups and downs of business.
Georgie: One of my favorite stories happened right before Hilary’s. In February of 2020, Palm Springs hosted its annual Modernism Week, a midcentury architectural and design festival, chockful of innovative designers, inspired interiors, and quintessential Southern California backdrops. A few months prior to the festival, I connected with a colleague I knew from my work at StoneImpressions who was helping to organize the event. She was thrilled to hear about LIVDEN and offered us the opportunity to showcase our tile at Modernism Week! Hilary and I collaborated with amazing designers, and industry experts to pull off stunning tile installations in two different kitchens.
This was the first time we got to see our tile live in a home and see firsthand how it helped transform the space and make it come to life, and something I think will stick with me for a long time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Georgie: We take a lot of our own marketing photos for LIVDEN and we started that process with little to no previous photography knowledge. One time, when we were first starting out, we photographed this beautiful home and spent almost 3 hours getting the perfect installation shots. Only once we had made it back to the office and uploaded the photos did we realize that there was a fish-eye effect on every single photo. At the time, this mishap was frustrating, but now when I think back on it, I laugh. We’ve come so far! And everything has a learning curve. I love that we are always pushing ourselves to try new things and expanding our skills, even if it means there might be a few mistakes along the way
Hilary: We like to stick to the philosophy that there are no mistakes, just learning opportunities in disguise. For example, we learned a lot from one of our first brand collaborations. Last year, we were approached by a prominent media company and offered the opportunity to collaborate with them on an upcoming home renovation show. Unfortunately, the collaboration didn’t go as planned — you could barely see our tile in the show (I think we got about 5 seconds of airtime) and the product feature not on the same level as our expectations. In hindsight, we probably got a little too excited when being approached by such a popular network. But rather than seeing this as a mistake, we chose to do a post-mortem on the situation as a team to see what we could learn. Ultimately, we came out of this discussion with a new collaboration vetting process and specific goals for who we’d like to collaborate with and how we’d like to collaborate with them moving forward.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Hilary: My mom absolutely helped me get to where I am today. Starting out, I think I was a little intimidated to showcase my own artistic talents, having grown up seeing the success of her art first-hand, to chart my own path in the design world. But, eventually, I reached a point in my life where I really felt ready to start exploring my own voice artistically. When I told my mom I had been experimenting with creating my own designs, she immediately handed me her own tool kit of art supplies and gave me her best design tips. The biggest thing she instilled in me is to never compare yourself to anyone else and to stick to the style that feels right to you. She said it wasn’t until she stopped listening to everyone else that she finally started to create designs that were successful and made her proud.
Georgie: I am eternally grateful for the guidance and support from my father. The biggest thing he has taught me is that it’s okay to try things out even if they might not work out. I am definitely the kind of person that likes to look and know what is going on from all angles. He taught me that is okay to take a leap of faith and just see how things go. Without that kind of support and encouragement, I am not sure LIVDEN would be here today.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Georgie: I think multiple systemic barriers prevent women from founding companies. According to PitchBook, only 2.8% of capital invested across the entire U.S. startup ecosystem is in all-female founding teams. This data point from VC investment trends highlights just one of the many gender gaps that still exist today and prevent women from joining the founders’ club. We need women on the other side of the table to accelerate our accessibility to the resources necessary, financial, or otherwise, for starting a successful business.
Hilary: Personally, I think there is still a narrative circulating about women being at a disadvantage in business by nature of their sex. I feel that perpetuating this narrative is harmful because it flattens women and holds them back from founding companies or even just entering the business world. In my opinion, I think we should do away with these antiquated narratives that focus more on the disparities between women and men. Instead, let’s replace them with narratives that focus on our similarities, our strengths, and our shared ability to thrive in the business landscape.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Hilary: Absolutely. One of our biggest strengths at LIVDEN is our network. We’ve aligned ourselves with like-minded suppliers and industry members that share in our vision for a greener design industry and a proliferation of recycled building materials. Not only do these relationships help grow our business, but they also help foster a sense of community within our work. Over the years, I’ve seen that this collaboration, communication, and connection leads to innovation and success for all sides. I think moving forward, creating communities that uplift and support one another will be essential for women to overcome the obstacles currently at play.
Georgie: Outside of developing communities, I think one of the best things we can do as a society is to continue to educate ourselves and expand the amount of governmental support for female entrepreneurs. For example, we could increase the number of Women’s Business Centers (WBCs) nationwide, widen the eligibility requirements for federal contracts, or augment the government’s contracting goal for women-owned small businesses. Alongside individual and community-building efforts, government-backed initiatives and organizations dedicated to educating and uplifting women in business will be critical for making sure more female entrepreneurs enter the business sphere.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Georgie: When women invest in themselves, and when society reinvests in those women, we all win. I want more women to become female founders because I strongly believe that when there are more women in positions of power, it creates more opportunity for women across all levels. And it also leads to a plurality of perspectives happening within the workspace. These differing vantage points, ideas, and personalities all coalescing together create a hotbed for innovation and progression.
Hilary: I believe being a founder comes down to individual strengths and personality, not your sex or gender identity. No matter who you are, I think you need to reflect on the responsibilities and complexities that come with being a founder and ask yourself honestly if that is the right role for you. The worst thing you can do is go down a career path because you feel like it’s what you should do or what’s expected of you, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. Taking the time to be transparent with yourself about who you are, how you work, and how you can best contribute can help you crystallize which role is right for you.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Hilary: That we have it all together. From the outside, it may look like we have it all together and we wake up every day with an Energizer-bunny-like “rise and grind” attitude that never falters or fails. But the truth is, we have days where we doubt ourselves or don’t feel motivation. Whether you have already founded a company or are an aspiring founder, remember this: don’t compare where you are to where someone else is. Most of the time, what you see when you are comparing your journey to someone else’s is just a tiny fraction of their entire life. It’s normal to have doubts or run into imposter syndrome, and I think the more we can be honest about that the easier it will be for women across the board.
Georgie: One myth I’d like to clear up is that most founders “do it alone” or found success only by virtue of being the “lone wolf type.” My experiences so far have totally busted that myth. For myself and a lot of other founders I’ve known or worked with, success came from collaboration and taking the time to build meaningful relationships. When you shift your perspective from the individual to the collective in business, it can really multiply the impact that you have on others and your company’s growth.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Georgie: While being a founder is incredibly exciting, it also comes with its own set of hurdles that not every person may be up for tackling. As a founder, you have to be the passionate spark that ignites your team, and you have to be the visionary leader with the wherewithal to grow your organization and find success. These responsibilities come with myriad challenges and take individuals who are not afraid to take risks, speak directly, and persist despite the inevitable peaks and valleys of the business landscape. Not everyone has these personality traits or skillsets so not every person may be suited or enjoy being a founder. If you are interested in starting a business, I think the best thing you can do is have a frank and honest conversation with yourself. Research and talk with founders about their days are like and how their responsibilities pan out over the course of a year, and ask yourself: Would I be suited for this type of position? And, even if I am, is this the type of position I want to pursue, or one that would fulfill me or make me happy?
Hilary: No, I do not think everyone is cut out to be a founder. And that’s not a bad thing! Knowing your strengths and leaning into them can amplify your contributions to your company and accelerate your own growth. Even as a Co-Founder, I regularly work with Georgie to divide and conquer our goals, delegating responsibilities based on whose skillset or personality is better suited for the task. We’ve found that this synergy of specialization and collaboration not only leads to great work product but also leads to great work satisfaction and productivity.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Trust your gut. If you feel strongly about something, speak up! Confidence in your intuition can positively impact your work and your contributions to the company’s success overall.
- Show some vulnerability. To have a strong team you need trust, and to get trust you need to start with honesty and openness at all levels of the organization.
- Lean into the lows and learn from them. Instead of asking, “Why is this happening?” ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Without any challenge, there is no change.
- Collaborate, don’t compete. At the end of the day, a lasting and meaningful business relationship is the biggest win.
- Find a mentor. Having someone you can bounce ideas off of, talk through issues with, or seek advice from is essential for your growth. And they don’t have to be at your company! Look for a mentor that has business experience you can leverage to better navigate your own.
- Have a clear vision of what your business stands for and a solid roadmap of specific goals you want to achieve and how you want your business to grow.
- You can’t do it alone! Commit to investing in a diversified talent pool. Your business is only as good as the people you have helping you run it and a plurality of perspectives is a surefire way to bring about innovation and success.
- Commit to empowering other women — women within and outside of your organization. Within your company, look for growth and leadership opportunities for your female staff. Outside of your organization, aim to build relationships or work with other female-founded or female-run organizations.
- Prioritize transparency. The best leaders are those who are able to create a shared collective, wherein every member of the organization is empowered by trust and the knowledge that they have the power to help move the company forward. Transparency — the best leaders are transparent with their staff.
- Cultivate two-way communication. Communication is key, but not if it is one-sided or top-down only. Give everyone in your organization the confidence, opportunity, and channels to have those dialogues.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Georgie: I’d love to inspire a free education movement. Like we touched on before, education and access to information can be such a game-changer for so many individuals, especially women. Relieving the financial, institutional, or locational barriers to education would surely open opportunities to a more widespread group of Americans. And, in turn, this movement could open the doors for individuals at all levels, potentially lowering the barrier to entry for many individuals considering entrepreneurship.
Hilary: I would love to inspire a movement towards tolerance, where people are more open to ideas that differ or contrast their personal values or beliefs. Especially in today’s digital age, where what we see and who we connect with online can be filtered based on our prior actions and previously identified opinions, it is easy to become insulated. I’d love for more people to step outside their individual filter bubble and develop a tolerance for information that’s deemed different, rather than assuming different automatically equates to bad.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.